Responding to David Brooks, on the recent upsurge in technocracy and its risks. (This post was originally part of a discussion thread with friends, but I got into it enough to decide to put it up here.)
I'm convinced technology is increasing the marginal truthfulness of many progressive claims. I don't believe it fundamentally changes the relationship among individuals, economies, government, and other social institutions.
The example that comes to mind is mutiny. Mutiny was a huge worry for captains and navies for hundreds of years, right up until the invention of the radio. See mutiny for interesting reading, and watch Mutiny on the Bounty and The Caine Mutiny (starring Bogart!) for good fictional accounts of the psychology and institutions that shape mutiny.
Radio was a game changer. Since the invention and adoption of radio, mutiny has been almost unheard of, especially among large naval powers. (The Vietnam-era SS_Columbia_Eagle_incident is the exception that proves the rule.) Shipboard radios tighten the link between the captain's authority and the worldwide chain of command. It makes escape extremely unlikely for mutineers. However, desertion, disobedience, cowardice, incompetence, corruption, theft, etc. are still problems for ships and navies.
As I see it, mutiny was already a marginal activity -- very risky for the mutineers, with a low probability of success -- and radio pushed the marginal success rate much lower. But mutiny is just one act. From the perspective of naval efficiency, radio changed the balance of power, but didn't fix the underlying social problems of enforcing discipline and coordinating action. Radio caused changes in the social structure of ships, but they didn't fundamentally alter the problems that navies face.
Information technology is doing a similar thing today. It lowers the cost of storing, transmitting, aggregating, and manipulating data. Where lower transaction costs can solve social problems, the progressives (and I'm one of them, cautiously) are right to be optimistic.
But many kinds of information have been cheap for a long time. Socially, we haven't solved the problems of greed, lying, bureaucratic turf wars, bullying, corruption, graft, incompetence... When *those* are the real causes, changes in information technology can't be expected to help nearly as much. We need to invent better institutions first.